Fun In The Presence Of Fear


It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced a sense of fear when performing. Back in my early days as a budding singer-songwriter my performance skills were nonexistent. Coming of age in the late 70’s playing in bars and coffeehouses, you could usually find me looking down at my fingers terrified that I would screw up the chords. Between songs I would mumble incoherently and so self-effacing I’m sure it was painful to watch.

I know this because my husband Ernest tried everything to get the Beth who sang at home with centered confidence to show up and step all the way into her shoes as a talented artist when performing in public. I’d have to say his ongoing frustration with this challenge was probably the thing we argued about the most!

I struggled on and off for many years with unpredictable lapses in confidence and self worth when in front of an audience. There was this punishing voice in my head that would say “they won’t like you” or worse “they’re pretending to like you but really they feel sorry for you.”

This combo-platter of fear left me with a stage presence that you could call “control freak meets doormat”. Nobody could win. Not the audience and certainly not me.

Still somehow I managed to do some wonderful performances over the next decade or two in spite of those times on stage when that old sense of unworthiness crept back in. Looking back now and seeing videos of myself at that time, I was rarely present. The times when I wasn’t gripped in that fear, I was leaving the rendering of my performance up to muscle memory while my mind drifted off somewhere in an effort to avoid the stress of considering the possibilities of all that could go wrong. Interestingly, the “muscle memory” performances ended up being pretty good. After all I did have skills whenever my fear of failure wasn’t undermining them.

So how did I end up like I am today, fully realized performer renown for my ability to recover with humor from some whopper mistakes, in love with performing and virtually fearless? How is that possible?

Collage of performance

Well I could write a book on that. Finding and igniting the pilot light of one’s own sense self-worth is one of the greatest gifts we can learn how to give ourselves.

For me it was about learning to trust that all the people ‘out there’ also struggle with their own version of this fear. The reason it’s painful for us to watch someone die on stage is because we don’t want that for anyone. I had to learn to trust that my audience wanted to support me.

But before that could happen I had a job to do, which was to be present and set the intention to have a blast.

My husband Ernest died of cancer in 1994. In one of our last conversations, which was powerful on many levels, Ernest finally hit on a way to help me see how to change the old unpredictable fear-based dynamic I still carried. He simply said, “Honey, promise me when you perform please, just go out there and have fun. Even if you never know how much talent you have, instead of spending any of your energy comparing and judging yourself, just lead with fun. I promise you, it will create it’s own phantom power.”

And that’s what I did. The very next time I performed and every time since I’ve stayed in the “fun zone”. Mistakes are going to happen. And like I said I’m KNOWN for the quality and quantity of my musical mishaps!

Try starting a song on live BBC radio in the wrong key with an 80-piece orchestra going out to several million people! I stopped cold realizing something was terribly wrong and the collective gasp of the audience was palpable. I followed this with “Oh, I’m known for this! It has to happen at least once every show!” There was laughter and applause as I put my capo on the correct fret and launched again.

I no longer feel nor do I come across as unworthy when I’m up on stage sharing my songs and my stories. I dive right into the whole great bang of what it is to be right there with that audience in that moment. The first moments of walking on a stage I feel like I’m being handed a blank check. In the past I never would have known I could write it for any amount and sign my name “Fun” and the audience would double my investment!

Each collection of people is unique and yet it’s a given that without exception they are there to laugh, cry and sing along bringing all it means to be human in a celebration of songs.

In truth of course I’m not really fearless. I just have a different relationship to fear these days. Although it no longer has a driver’s license fear is always going to be along for the ride. If it starts to get in the way I just pop a sun hat on it and give it a tambourine. Sometimes I think fear is really just my ego in drag.


  • Donna Reynolds says:

    Thanks Beth. I appreciate you sharing. The last few years I have had a lot of anxiety before I perform and, in fact, have stopped performing to some degree. It is almost like a panic attack. I have always gotten nervous before performing but once on stage, the music took me to another place and, like you, if I made a mistake, I shook it off and went right on. Not so today. Your perspective on fear is a good one….one that I must grab hold to and just enjoy the moment and the music.

    • BNC says:

      Hi Donna! Great to hear from you! Thanks for sharing that. Having only had one or two actual panic attacks I can say the intensity is impossible to describe. Being in the moment is the key~ and not being afraid (easy to say!) in that moment. It does get better with repeated experience!


  • John Delaney says:

    It is a great thing to be a ‘late blooming performer’. I had a bit of a gap from a single performance punk band at school aged 17 until setting up a rock/blues covers band aged 52. The advantage of performing at a later age is that I find I am less concerned what people think and more concerned with enjoying myself. The confidence that comes with age also helps. Each time I have been in a situation where I would have expected to be nervous I have found that adrenaline kicks in and I have absolutely loved it. That includes performing my own song at your songwriting class with you harmonising, two hour gigs of cove songs and a few weeks ago performing a song I wrote for a charity walker at a big event in Newcastle. That night ended up with me leading an Irish style session in a Newcastle pub.
    It is also helpful to be very receptive to learning new skills, whatever your age, hence signing on for some singing lessons and workshops on songwriting, guitar chords structures, beginners harmonica and basic sound engineering. As an accountant I am used to regular courses to keep up to date with technical matters so it is a logical step to invest in your personal development outside of your career. I hope to meet up with you again at one of your future masterclasses.

    • BNC says:

      Thanks John! Wow! That’s a lot of amazing stuff you’re up to! Hope to see you again in a future MasterClass!


  • I can never thank you enough for your critique on my work in Melbourne workshop. Song was I’m going to build that dream, finished two new cds, one all originals and a book, all since the workshop.
    Well I did just that and as you suggested sang it in the first person. Thank-you Beth you are an inspiration. lOVE Maggie Jackson Australia

  • Debbie says:

    Oh, Beth. You have no idea how your comments just helped me. I’m preparing to speak to 10,000 women at a convention and am in the throes of all the fear you described. I’ve worked over my speech so much I don’t even like it …and that’s ridiculous. After your beautiful story, I’m just going out there and have FUN!! I’m sending you a giant HUG and so grateful for your post today! <3

    • BNC says:

      Amazing Debbie! How wonderful to have the opportunity to speak to 10,000 women! Especially “Women on fire”! Please let me know how it goes! Details!


  • Eliz Maddox says:

    Keep up the good work Beth !!!!!!!!

  • Katherine Baly says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Beth. There definitely needs to be more hats and tambourines all round – for all those not so twinkly parts of ourselves that just need to be gently welcomed in to join the party. I recently recorded a song I had written as a goodbye to a lovely friend who was moving away. The process, although not a live performance (my dog and dashboard are my usual audience), was all a bit scary frankly – I hadn’t ever stood in front of a microphone, or heard my own warbles. Pre-emptively forgiving myself helped as well as deciding to keep being my own friend before, during and after – particularly the slightly excruciating listening back. I’m chuffed now that I did it – and no doubt it’ll be a lesson to keep learning and playing with…

  • Tony Franko says:


    So nice to read this. It was such a wonderful experience with you and David at omega last year. I have always struggled with performance anxiety when I am playing for people. It’s the reason I waited all the way till the end last year to get up and finally play. I would have never guessed that you had ever felt uneasy performing. Since that time I decided to just dive . Thanks for being so candid and putting yourself out there for us.


    • BNC says:

      Great to hear from you Tony! And so happy to hear that you have decided to dive! It only gets better!


  • What strange magic to find your email this morning. my husband died suddenly three months ago and we both shared many many lovely times at your concerts over here in England… particularly at Sandwich in Kent… when I was singing along with you in the front row… Since he died I haven’t ventured into our library of your songs for fear of the pain … but I have begun singing again after many years… Last night… I wrestled with the almost crippling nerves and coping strategies you describe and … YEE HAA … I had a Blast singing in front of 200 people with the combined voices of Rock Choir behind me… Living on a Prayer was never more Apt!! Upwards and onwards now with your words chiming in my ears… thank you from the heart…

    • BNC says:

      Oh wow! That’s amazing to hear!! Jeannie…I’m so sorry to hear about the sudden death of your husband. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be…glad to hear you’re singing though! Find the music that feels right for now and let that grief keep on flowing through….having art and creativity within us is like being handed a big ol’ shovel with which to turn the soil of grief. Tears mixed in with some of the crap life gives us makes for super duper fertilizer!


  • Maart says:

    Well said, Beth. I love the bit about “I just pop a sun hat on it and give it a tambourine”. It’s been my pleasure to stand next to you while you have endured some of these amazing train smashes, and your powers of recovery are the best in the business. Thank you for being my friend and I can’t wait to share the stage with you again xxx

    • BNC says:

      Haaaa! Maart…I’m going to actually post the “train-smash” into my next newsletter. It’s time for me to come clean!


      (Happy Birthday to Jan!)

  • Mike Hutchins says:

    Hi Beth,

    Thank-you for opening up and sharing a sliver of your life experience with us. I especially appreciate reading about your conversations with your husband Ernest. Having fun is what it is all about. Audiences are there to have fun with you, to laugh, cry, and sing along with you as your songs touch their very souls.
    I was a high school mathematics teacher for 30 years before now working with U.S. Customs, and I came to the same conclusion early in my career; make teaching fun and I’ll never be self conscience or embarrassed in front of them, especially when I make a mistake. I had an amazing career influencing the lives of over 4000 students.
    In just two weeks, I will be in front of a classroom again as I will be one of 5 instructors at the chaplain academy for my agency in Homeland Security. My assignment will be to teach 30 prospective chaplains on grief, bereavement, and PTSD. Sand and Water helped me when I was at the lowest time of my life (losing my wife Beth to colon cancer just a few months before you lost your husband); please know that I will be using my personal experience with your music in my instruction.
    I recently met Elton and spoke to him of how Sand and Water helped me ( knowing your connection to him). May you continue to have fun on stage and your music continue to help others and touch their souls. I will never forget the shout out you gave me at your show in Massachusetts before you sang Sand and Water. Grace and Peace my friend!

    • BNC says:

      Always so wonderful to hear from you Mike! We go back a ways!!

      How cool that you saw Elton! And I love hearing your story and what great work you’ve been doing! I’m happy to hear you’ll incorporate the music!


  • LJ3 says:

    Saw you in Nashville last May at the Festival of Homiletics and fell in love with what you’re doing. Your honesty, your depth — wow — a simple Thank You covers it all but says not nearly enough.

    • BNC says:

      Thank you!! I love doing the Festival of Homiletics. That’s some amazing gathering of fun people!


  • Beth, you are an inspiration (even to those of us who are not performers) by the way you lead your life. Ernest is smiling somewhere. I’m sure of it.

    • BNC says:

      Thanks Tamara!

      I miss seeing you! AND I loved your memoir! What an amazing story and piece of writing!

      Hope to see you soon!


  • Katherine Webb says:

    Hi there 🙂
    You’ve written such powerful and important words in this your first (of many, we hope) newsletter. I’ve enjoyed your music over the years live and through records/cd/mp3 and look forward to more writings and more music. Thank you for sharing your gift with all of us. Cheers!

    • BNC says:

      Thanks for that encouragement Katherine~ and everyone! I will admit I have sweated over this first newsletter. Big learning curve navigating my new website and finally getting the hang of it. But I’ve been learning so much under the tutelage of Lydia Hutchinson (check out who designed the new site for me. Lydia is also putting together the fabulous retreat in Italy!

      Anyway…thanks for the thumbs up!


  • Your story reminded me of the first time I took my driver’s license test. I was so afraid, and to top it off it was snowing. I put the car in reverse instead of forward and plowed into a snow bank! That experience taught me not to push down my fear, but recognize it, and learn how to deal with it; maybe even in a sense to embrace it!

    One comment; you may want to consider a blog in addition to this newsletter! God Bless you!

    • BNC says:

      Oh I don’t know Reggie….a blog AND a newsletter? I wouldn’t have time to slog through all the songs I have to finish!

      Love that idea…recognize that fear is there and work with it…it is always along for the ride!


  • Michael L Morehead says:

    This was great to read, Beth and I have been a fan since 1992. I have been directing theatre going into my 44th season…15 in a High School, the remainder in community theatre, and I have a two-fold mantra – “To Make the Word Flesh” and Have Fun. I have directed a few productions where fear of failure and humongous insecurities cause meltdowns and unneeded tension. One of my standard comments at the first rehearsal of each show is that “…we are here to have fun and that if that is not your goal, others auditioned for the role you have, and would love to step in.” I also mention that the journey is not ‘film’ but is ‘theatre’ and Perfection rarely occurs, although it is the goal. Reading your comments, especially the one involving the orchestra, reminded me of my own goof-ups, especially one where, as a pre-show to a play entitled “Firefox”, about a returning performing son to his father’s funeral, I failed to take off a capo as we launched into Big Ed Wheeler’s “The Coming of the Roads” with a flute playing the right key. This song was leading immediately into the first scene and we had built the music of the pre-show to rise to the emotion of this song. A bit red-faced, I stopped and simply said “there is a reason it’s not film, folks” and restarted.
    We are granted just so much talent at birth…some of us have more, some less, but it is our duty to find what that talent is and use it up…when we come before Our Creator at the end of our lives, I do not believe that we will be asked how many of the commandments we failed to keep (most of us could answer only one or two were kept), but whether or not we found our purpose and did we fulfill it. Did we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless?
    Thank you for your insights, the soaring soul of your music and the humility of your talent. Many are daily sustained.

  • Jo says:

    Just learning to overcome my anxiety and fears at the moment and stick them in the passenger seat. It really helps when someone so talented and lovely as yourself shares things like this – makes me realise it can affect anyone. I love going to see you sing precisely because you always seem to have fun and enjoy it. I remember seeing you bounce along to ‘Free’ at Edinburgh many years ago when I was extremely depressed and it just made me want to fight it and have fun. Really helped. I’ve just started using imagery to combat anxiety – may steal the straw hat and tambourine! Keep having fun

    • BNC says:

      Oh yes! DO steal the hat and tambourine! And feel free to draw on a mustache! Once I realized how contagious having fun is to an audience…thanks to a few doozy mistakes and recoveries on my part, I left anxiety behind.

      Now I only get anxious if I’m having too much fun performing and forget that the trains stop at a certain hour!

      Some of my UK audiences have had the pleasure of running for the train after my show! Sorry guys!

      So happy to hear that “Free” lifted you up!


  • Andy Callin says:

    Hi Beth, so refreshing to read an honest account of your experiences and the replies to date – particularly the one from John Delaney, a fellow Brit! Just 3 years ago, someone very special came into my life and taught me how to be myself – a totally transforming experience. Your song ‘Even As It All Goes By’ was THE song that spoke to me.
    I’ve played keyboards competantly all my life and love improvising but capturing the moment that combines the right lyrics & music has always been challenging. It’s the ‘live’ experience I love the most, both the performing and as an audio professional – until recently I owned the PA company that provided the sound at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the 2012 Seasons of Love concert. That special person was with me as you performed with the orchestra and spoke truly from the heart.
    Now I have more creative space, I’m constantly being encouraged to rediscover the joy of songwriting from the heart, and really looking forward to your August workshop in Rhinebeck!


    • BNC says:

      Andy~ I’m super thrilled to hear you’ll be at the Omega workshop in Rhinebeck! I put that moment on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall right up there at the top of my most treasured memories performing!

      I’ve been so moved by the response to my article about Fun & Fear. It seems not one of us escape experiencing the latter. And we’re all so much more in our center when experiencing fun.

      See you in August!


  • Diane Nilan says:

    Stumbling upon your newsletter (good job!) via FaceBook, I read your “Fun” story with a great sense of serendipity. No longer do I perform in front of audiences with my guitar, but I do stand on the stage and try to inspire a compassion epidemic for homeless kids in America as part of my HEAR US Inc. work.

    Lately I’ve felt the anxiety that comes from that lack of confidence–you described it so well. Ernest’s advice, “go out and have fun,” is a perfect reminder for me, even with this somber topic. As I face audiences across the country during my fall tour, I’ll think of that advice. Thanks for sharing…and thanks for your gift of music! It’s eased my troubled mind more than I’d admit!

  • June @So_meow says:

    This is a brilliant post. You just keep getting awesomer, apparently 🙂

  • Joe Amodei says:

    I remember an interview with Frank Sinatra towards the latter stages of his career. Someone asked him about those five minutes before going out on stage. He replied that he is constantly overcome with fear. Fear about everything, forgetting words, missing notes and above all “fear that they won’t like me.” This was the Chairman of the Board talking. He then went on to say that he had to teach himself the very same thing that Ernest told Beth. To have fun and to know that even if he made a mistake, and he did many times, that it would be OK. That it would be fine and that the audience would actually share in it. That fear he had would go away the minute he got onstage. But those couple of minutes leading up to the curtain opening….Whoa!
    Guess that is what makes the great great.

    • BNC says:

      Hi Joe!

      Great to hear back from you! I love that story about the Chairman! Amazing! Hope you’re well!


  • David Sutherland says:

    I love this piece that is worth considering: “it’ll all work out in the end; if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end!”

  • Carl Marsh says:

    What an honest and inspiring offering. And a great read to kick off my Sunday morning. As I prepare to host and speak at an orchestra concert today, I’ll remember well your words, and will have a blast !

    • BNC says:

      Hi Carl! Wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for creating some of my favorite arrangements of my songs! xoxoxo

  • Rlovesart says:

    Beth’s voice is so lovely and her talent so apparent it’s hard to believe she ever doubted it. But such is the way of women, I suppose. We all think we aren’t as remarkable as others see us… But when I hear Beth’s voice, I am so moved by its beauty. It’s one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard and as someone who adores singing but has a truly awful voice, I am grateful she is one of those people who overcomes their own doubts to share their gift with the world. A lovely voice, songwriting ability, playing instruments–these are gifts meant to be shared with others. And I love it. Music is meant to be shared and appreciated by all. Please never stop, Beth. Your voice matters and has meant a lot to me. : )

    • BNC says:

      Thank you for your kind comments! I bet if I had a half hour with you and your voice I could interrupt that definition you’ve given your sound! But that’ll be a whole other subject for a future newsletter!

      In the meantime…I’ll never stop! …’s hard on the laundry pile though I must admit!


  • Grahame Staines says:

    Hi Beth, seeing you recently at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, I can say, you came across exactly as you have described yourself. Make a mistake, have fun with it, start in the one key, no, lets try a different one, how does that song go?, yes that’s right, that’s how it starts. That night, I not only enjoyed your music, I was captured with your presence and the effect you had on the room. You made us laugh, you made us sing, you made us relax and all because you were you, thanks.

  • Gerry and Geraldine McCollum says:

    Hi Beth

    Sorry for the delay in replying to your great post. We all love you the way you are and that is what makes you that person on or off the stage. You mention the odd slip of a chord! Do you remember though the night in Belfast when an earring flew off onto the stage! You know what your and Kimmie Rhodes’ song “Shine All Your Light” means to us and our charity here in Northern Ireland. Well Beth that is what you must continue to do and “shine all your light” everywhere you go. Thanks for that last great night in Belfast in April with Martin, Ruth Trimble, Bap Kennedy and Andrea Begley.

    From Gerry and Geraldine



  • Joseph says:

    I can SO relate to the stage fright. My hands used to get so cold I was afraid to touch metal for fear they’d get stuck. Thankfully, over 40 years as a church musician that’s long gone. But the mistakes are still there. My before-service prayer is to play well enough to touch the heart of someone in the congregation who desperately needs it, yet also to make enough mistakes to remind me that while I may be working for God, He is perfect, and I am NOT. That part of the prayer is always answered in the affirmative. As a perfectionist in my music I always mentally kicked myself for every single note that I didn’t play as I had intended to. But finally over the years, enough people kept telling me, just when I was making myself completely miserable about how I’d just played, that I had touched them with that same music, I had to start letting it go. You practice, and you play, and God will be happy with the result. And if He is, how can you not be? Beth, God Bless you for the wonderful music you write and sing. Your Faith comes through. And this World surely needs that right now.

    • BNC says:

      Thanks Joe!! I love what you wrote…just keep on putting it out there cause someone always will be there who needs to hear it! 😉

      • Joe Lewis says:

        I write this with a heavy heart. My wife, Wendy, lost her 12 year fight with breast cancer May 21st, 5 days shy of our 26th anniversary. She was in Hospice care, and I was her caregiver. We loved each other very much. She was 68. I am so grateful for your music, written from a heart touched with your own sorrow, which is helping me grieve, particularly No One Knows But You, How We Love, Say Goodnight, not Goodbye, There’s a Light…… I have no siblings and no family close by. My music (and yours) is my therapy. Thank you, and God bless you for it.

        And just this past week less than 8 miles from here Christina Grimmie was murdered. If I had known she was going to be there, I probably would have been there too. And the next night that terrorist obscenity happened about 12 miles from here. I’ve about had it with 2016.
        Especially now, it does my heart good to hear of your continued freedom from cancer.


  • Fun In The Presence of Fear, what a great thought!

    If you are ever in Los Angeles with down time, it would be a dream to host a house concert for you. We do about 5 house concerts a year. I have been a fan since your Beth Nielsen Chapman album I think back in 90 or 91.

    I have just started writing songs and performed a few of them a few times. (that was fun in the presence of fear for me) One day I hope to make it to one of your workshops. I know it would be magical!

  • Long time writer, I struggled with continuing after my Songwriting partner said our personal relationship was over. It was pretty hard but I knew I had to keep writing to finish my story no matter who came with me. I am a lyrics guy so I struggle with the fear of withdrawing stuff nobody will relate to or like. Rejoining ASCAP as a Writer/Publisher has given me a confidence in my work I needed and know I can keep going to bat and see what I can come up with every time. Thanks for sharing your stories with us BNC. All the best to you!

  • George Haag says:

    You have been a hero to me since the 90’s. I think of you as a female version of Dan Fogelberg because of the way your music has made it past the barriers and touched my heart. I have just recently discovered (how’s that for coming late to the party) your teaching and have been blown away. It’s been wonderful listening to the different recordings and the simplicity of your message. I am not young, and have experienced much, but two of your songs, The Moment You Were Mine, and Say Goodnight, Not Goodbye, have, because of things I have lived, touched me in a way and in a place that nothing else has. I would be much the poorer without having experienced who you are. Thank you for the blessing.

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